Are You Anemic?
When you have anemia, your body doesn't produce enough red blood cells. You don't get enough oxygen, which makes you feel fatigued and can also cause serious health complications.
Anemia, also known as iron-poor blood, is a common disorder that occurs when a deficiency in your red blood cells impedes delivery of oxygen throughout your body.
The most common cause of anemia is low iron levels in the blood – iron-deficiency anemia.
Without iron, your red blood cells may become low in a protein called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. You essentially begin to suffocate from within.
A normal red blood cell count in women is 12 grams per deciliter of blood (g/DL), and in men it’s 15g/DL. If you show below-normal levels, your doctor will most likely perform other blood tests to determine what’s at the root of the problem.
People who are anemic feel tired and worn out, and their overall health begins to suffer. In severe cases, anemic people who do not seek treatment can experience major organ damage due to oxygen starvation.
Causes of Anemia
There are three main reasons people become anemic: blood loss, a reduction in the body's ability to produce new red blood cells, or an illness that leads to increased destruction of red blood cells.
Blood loss.?When the amount of blood lost is greater than your body's ability to replace the lost red blood cells, you can become anemic. Women who experience heavy menstrual periods, for example, and people who have internal bleeding due to ulcers or other digestive problems are at the greatest risk for anemia. Sometimes this type of blood loss is silent and unrecognized until anemia shows up on a blood test. External bleeding from surgery or trauma also can cause anemia.
Low production of red blood cells.?Even if you're not bleeding, old red blood cells constantly need to be replaced with new ones.
A number of factors can cause your body to produce too few red blood cells, or red blood cells lacking in sufficient hemoglobin.
- Diet.?If your diet is lacking in?foods containing iron, folic acid, vitamin B12, and other essential nutrients, your red blood cell production can falter.
- Medical conditions.?Chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and?HIV/AIDS?can interfere with the body's ability to produce red blood cells. Women who are pregnant also can become anemic.
- Genetic disorders.?Children can inherit conditions, like aplastic anemia, that prevent them from producing enough red blood cells. Inherited conditions like sickle cell anemia and?hemolytic anemia?also can prompt the body to destroy red blood cells.
- Increased red blood cell destruction.?Certain diseases can cause your body to turn on its own red blood cells and destroy them. For example, you can become anemic due to an illness that affects your spleen, the organ that normally removes worn-out red blood cells from your body. A diseased or enlarged spleen can begin removing more red blood cells than necessary.
Anemia Signs and Symptoms
People who are anemic most often experience fatigue. While it’s normal to feel tired after a long day at work or a heavy exercise session, when you're anemic, you feel weary after shorter and shorter periods of exertion as your body's cells become starved for oxygen.
As anemia worsens, your body can experience visible physical changes — your skin could become pale, your nails brittle and cuts may take longer to stop bleeding.
Other symptoms associated with anemia include:
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Racing or irregular heartbeat
- Inability to concentrate or think clearly
- Chest pain
- Sexual dysfunction
These symptoms are likely to be very light at first, especially if you have mild or moderate anemia. Our bodies are very adaptable, and will try to compensate for the loss of oxygen in the blood. As anemia advances, your body will be less able to adapt and the symptoms will become more obvious.
You should see your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms. However, anemia is often discovered while investigating another illness, since early-stage anemia often involves few or no symptoms.
A diagnosis of anemia usually involves:
- A Complete blood count (CBC), a blood test that measures all the different components of your blood.
- A medical and family history that can indicate whether you've become anemic due to illness or a genetic condition.
- A physical exam that can tell whether your breathing or heartbeat has become irregular due to anemia.
- Other blood tests that will check for iron or vitamin deficiencies and look more closely at your red blood cells and hemoglobin.
If you feel consistently weak or have any of the other symptoms associated with anemia, your next step should be to see your doctor.